Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Some potentially habitable planets began as gaseous, Neptune-like worlds

29.01.2015

Two phenomena known to inhibit the potential habitability of planets -- tidal forces and vigorous stellar activity -- might instead help chances for life on certain planets orbiting low-mass stars, University of Washington astronomers have found.

In a paper published this month in the journal Astrobiology, UW doctoral student Rodrigo Luger and co-author Rory Barnes, research assistant professor, say the two forces could combine to transform uninhabitable "mini-Neptunes" -- big planets in outer orbits with solid cores and thick hydrogen atmospheres -- into closer-in, gas-free, potentially habitable worlds.

Most of the stars in our galaxy are low-mass stars, also called M dwarfs. Smaller and dimmer than the sun, with close-in habitable zones, they make good targets for finding and studying potentially habitable planets. Astronomers expect to find many Earthlike and "super-Earth" planets in the habitable zones of these stars in coming years, so it's important to know if they might indeed support life.

Super-Earths are planets greater in mass than our own yet smaller than gas giants such as Neptune and Uranus. The habitable zone is that swath of space around a star that might allow liquid water on an orbiting rocky planet's surface, perhaps giving life a chance.

"There are many processes that are negligible on Earth but can affect the habitability of M dwarf planets," Luger said. "Two important ones are strong tidal effects and vigorous stellar activity."

A tidal force is a star's gravitational tug on an orbiting planet, and is stronger on the near side of the planet, facing the host star, than on the far side, since gravity weakens with distance. This pulling can stretch a world into an ellipsoidal or egglike shape as well as possibly causing it to migrate closer to its star.

"This is the reason we have ocean tides on Earth, as tidal forces from both the moon and the sun can tug on the oceans, creating a bulge that we experience as a high tide," Luger said. "Luckily, on Earth it's really only the water in the oceans that gets distorted, and only by a few feet. But close-in planets, like those in the habitable zones of M dwarfs, experience much stronger tidal forces."

This stretching causes friction in a planet's interior that gives off huge amounts of energy. This can drive surface volcanism and in some cases even heat the planet into a runaway greenhouse state, boiling away its oceans, and all chance of habitability.

Vigorous stellar activity also can destroy any chance for life on planets orbiting low-mass stars. M dwarfs are very bright when young and emit lots of high-energy X-rays and ultraviolet radiation that can heat a planet's upper atmosphere, spawning strong winds that can erode the atmosphere away entirely. In a recent paper, Luger and Barnes showed that a planet's entire surface water can be lost due to such stellar activity during the first few hundred million years following its formation.

"But things aren't necessarily as grim as they may sound," Luger said. Using computer models, the co-authors found that tidal forces and atmospheric escape can sometimes shape planets that start out as mini-Neptunes into gas-free, potentially habitable worlds.

How does this transformation happen?

Mini-Neptunes typically form far from their host star, with ice molecules joining with hydrogen and helium gases in great quantity to form icy/rocky cores surrounded by massive gaseous atmospheres.

"They are initially freezing cold, inhospitable worlds," Luger said. "But planets need not always remain in place. Alongside other processes, tidal forces can induce inward planet migration." This process can bring mini-Neptunes into their host star's habitable zone, where they are exposed to much higher levels of X-ray and ultraviolet radiation.

This can in turn lead to rapid loss of the atmospheric gases to space, sometimes leaving behind a hydrogen-free, rocky world smack dab in the habitable zone. The co-authors call such planets "habitable evaporated cores."

"Such a planet is likely to have abundant surface water, since its core is rich in water ice," Luger said. "Once in the habitable zone, this ice can melt and form oceans," perhaps leading to life.

Barnes and Luger note that many other conditions would have to be met for such planets to be habitable. One is the development of an atmosphere right for creating and recycling nutrients globally.

Another is simple timing. If hydrogen and helium loss is too slow while a planet is forming, a gaseous envelope would prevail and a rocky, terrestrial world may not form. If the world loses hydrogen too quickly, a runaway greenhouse state could result, with all water lost to space.

"The bottom line is that this process -- the transformation of a mini-Neptune into an Earthlike world -- could be a pathway to the formation of habitable worlds around M dwarf stars," Luger said.

Will they truly be habitable? That remains for future research to learn, Luger said.

"Either way, these evaporated cores are probably lurking out there in the habitable zones of these stars, and many may be discovered in the coming years."

Luger is lead author of the paper, with Barnes and Victoria Meadows his UW co-authors. Other co-authors are E. Lopez and Jonathan Fortney of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Brian Jackson of Boise State University.

The research was done through the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, a UW-based interdisciplinary research group, and funded through the NASA Astrobiology Institute under Cooperative Agreement Number NNA13AA93A .

This release is based on an essay by Luger. View a poster for the research. For more information, contact Luger at 206-543-6276 or rodluger@uw.edu; or Barnes at 206-543-8979 or rory@astro.washington.edu.

Media Contact

Peter Kelley
kellep@uw.edu
206-543-2580

 @UW

http://www.uwnews.org 

Peter Kelley | EurekAlert!

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Further Improvement of Qubit Lifetime for Quantum Computers
09.12.2016 | Forschungszentrum Jülich

nachricht Electron highway inside crystal
09.12.2016 | Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Electron highway inside crystal

Physicists of the University of Würzburg have made an astonishing discovery in a specific type of topological insulators. The effect is due to the structure of the materials used. The researchers have now published their work in the journal Science.

Topological insulators are currently the hot topic in physics according to the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Only a few weeks ago, their importance was...

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Researchers identify potentially druggable mutant p53 proteins that promote cancer growth

09.12.2016 | Life Sciences

Scientists produce a new roadmap for guiding development & conservation in the Amazon

09.12.2016 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

Satellites, airport visibility readings shed light on troops' exposure to air pollution

09.12.2016 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>